A new venue was needed for the Western Michigan University Food Marketing Conference this year. Previously held at the Radisson Plaza at Kalamazoo near the campus of WMU, the 51st annual conference took place April 11-12 at Devos Place in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“This venue was chosen because of the fact that we’ve outgrown our previous venue, where we’d been for the last 12 years. It’s exciting to be able to accommodate so many more people,” said Frank Gambino, director of food/CPG marketing at WMU. “This is our 10th consecutive year of record attendance. We broke the 820-person barrier this year for the first time and we’re really excited about that. We were about 750 last year, so that’s a good 10 percent increase over last year.”
Gambino told The Shelby Report’s Geoff Welch, who was in attendance, that 41 percent of the attendees last year were from Grand Rapids, so it was a logical choice. In addition, many companies that support the annual conference are headquartered in Grand Rapids, including Meijer, SpartanNash, Gordon Food Service and H.T. Hackney, as well as the CPG companies that in turn support them.
WMU bused 140 students from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids for the event. They arrived on Sunday, April 10, for a pre-conference event that took them through professionalism and etiquette in a business setting. Eighteen companies participated.
“We’ve been able to maintain the uniqueness of our conference by bringing our students,” Gambino said. “A lot of the employers want to be part of that, so having our students here has been a critical thing.”
He said the participating students felt the “wow effect” of the conference. They represent future talent for the manufacturers and retailers who attended. Many of the students were seeking internships or full-time employment.
“I think it’s really opened up their eyes,” he said. “The networking between the employers and the students has been fantastic.”
Phil Straniero, executive-in-residence at WMU, said this year was different for another reason as well.
“The key new element added to the show was actually the food service component,” Straniero said. “We had Wendy Davidson, president of Kellogg specialty channels. We had Rich Wolowski, who is president of Gordon Food Service. I think they brought an element to the conference that was very, very different from the past.”
Gambino also praised the speakers, who ranged from Jason Dorsey, a best selling author and millennials expert, to Meijer Co-Chairman Hank Meijer. Dorsey addressed misconceptions about millennials in a room full of baby boomers and got a standing ovation.
“That was an awesome experience for both sides, for the students and the CPG and retailer boomers to hear about the realities,” Gambino said.
Every speaker hit a homerun, according to Gambino and Straniero.
Straniero said author Neil Stern “opened up some people’s eyes, especially about new formats coming down the road, and then you can’t not appreciate the fact that Mr. Hank Meijer is our closing speaker.”
Gambino also was particularly proud of the executive forum moderated by former H-E-B SVP, Food/Drugs Paul Madura. The panelists included Chris Albi, VP of operations, Kroger; Tom Burkemper, senior director of merchandising, 7-Eleven; Kathy Casey, VP, U.S. channels, Kellogg Co.; Chuck Pilliter, EVP (retired), Trader Joe’s; and Bill Renz, VP, Rite Aid Corp.
“This year, for the first time, we really were able to get more of a channel perspective on that executive forum,” Gambino said. “There was a great mix of experience on the panel.”
For many of the 140 students, it was their first business trip.
“It was a real world experience for them and at the same time I think quite an adventure,” Straniero said.
Gambino said it was gratifying to see how this year’s conference came together and so many alumni in attendance as well as the continued growth of industry support for the program. Planning already is under way to make next year’s conference successful.
“We’re definitely committed to being back here next year, and I would tell you that our hope is that we’re going to keep growing the program,” Gambino said. “Some of our retailer partners here at the conference have committed to assisting us and reaching out to other CPG counterparts to make sure that we continue to grow this event. The quality of the event speaks for itself. The quality of these speakers is second to none.”
See photos from the event here.